By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
AS PART OF HIS PUSH TO GET CONGRESS and the United Nations to sign off on war with Iraq, President Bush has repeatedly promised that the Iraqi people are clamoring for liberation by U.S. forces. Likewise, the State Department has been holding regular meetings with a half-dozen Iraqi-American exile groups, talking up the post-Saddam future.
These are the proxies who have purportedly endorsed the U.S. invasion strategy, described by retired Army Lieutenant General Thomas McInerny in his August 1 testimony before the Senate, as "blitz warfare . . . [designed] for a devastating, violent impact [using] the most massive precision air campaign in history."
Scant evidence exists, however, that the State Department's hand-picked Iraqi interlocutors faithfully represent the prevailing views and desires of the 400,000 Iraqis living in the U.S., 78,000 of whom reside in Southern California.
Indeed, a broad canvassing of local Iraqi-Americans reveals that while anti-Saddam sentiment runs high, so does opposition to a U.S. military invasion. Both views seem nearly universal and have been confirmed by at least one State Department official interviewed for this story.
Look, the person you’re going
to kill has a mother.
—Ilham Heather al Sarraf
Like most diaspora populations, the Iraqi-American community varies widely in lifestyle and political viewpoint. There are ultrareligious enclaves and secular contingents, professionals and blue-collar workers, the politically active and the uninvolved. Yet, during interviews over the past three weeks, most opinions throughout this community coalesced around these twin principles: Everyone hates Saddam Hussein and wants him gone, yesterday if possible; and people emphatically do not want him taken out by American military force. This is, in part, because they fear that the "collateral damage" will be more catastrophic for their families than living under a tyrant. They are also convinced that war will produce a blowback effect -- for either the U.S., the Middle East, or both.
Typical of this mindset is Ban al-Wardi, a 27-year-old immigration attorney who was born in the U.S., but who makes regular trips to Baghdad to visit her uncles, aunts and cousins, all of whom still live in Iraq. She favors a diplomatically negotiated solution. "I was just at a town-hall meeting at my mosque," she says, "and we all hate Saddam -- we hate him more than you can imagine. But the overwhelming feeling is against an invasion, because we absolutely know that thousands and thousands of people are going to die. And many of them could be people we love. I mean, it's not this empty space we'll be attacking. American troops won't be fighting on Mars."
EVEN AMONG THE LESS POLITICALLY ACTIVE, the anti-war attitude prevails. Norair Aprahamian fled Iraq in 1971, when he was 15 years old, eventually finding passage to Los Angeles, where he found work pumping gas for $2.75 an hour. Now Aprahamian has his own auto-repair shop and gas station in Hollywood.
"I'm a patriot," he says, pointing out how for three months after 9/11 he donated 5 cents a gallon of gas sales to the New York police and fire departments. "But I tell you, I don't agree with what President Bush is planning. I think we're playing with fire. If today we take Saddam Hussein out by force, tomorrow someone will come into a shopping mall in California or New York and throw a bomb and kill a thousand people. If we kill innocent people, then they will kill innocent people." Aprahamian shakes his head. "I love this country. Why shouldn't I? I'm living the American Dream. But I'm telling you, we are about to make a terrible mistake."
Salam al-Marayati thinks so, too. As the executive director for L.A.'s Muslim Public Affairs Council, al-Marayati is the official spokesman for much of Southern California's Muslim community, often shuttling between L.A. and Washington, D.C. "I feel like a doctor working on a cadaver," he says. "Because I'm a spokesperson, I have to numb myself, otherwise I couldn't do my job. But I'm also Iraqi. That means I hear my mom on the phone with her brother in Baghdad talking to him about his family's options when the bombing starts."
Al-Marayati -- who supported the U.S. and NATO war in Kosovo -- believes, in the case of Iraq, that American air strikes are likely to worsen conditions, not improve them. "What if we back Saddam in a corner, and he decides to burn the oil fields, for example, or to use whatever weapons he's got? And then, after the country's been turned to rubble, who's to say we're going to end up with someone better?"
The notion that a cornered Saddam Hussein will unleash destructive forces throughout the region and beyond is an apprehension voiced by many. "Listen, people have tried to assassinate this man for 25 years, and they haven't been able to do it," says one 58-year-old former Iraqi army lieutenant, who asked that his name not be used. He left his homeland in 1977 when government officials pressured him to join Saddam's B'ath party; now he makes ends meet by working at Home Depot. "Why does President Bush think he can do it now? I know what Saddam is like. My very best friend back in Iraq was the son of the man who was president 30 years ago, when Saddam was vice president. And I'm telling you, if we make him desperate, he'll use any weapon -- on his own people, on Israel, on us, whatever. And then he'll disappear."